Iran and six powers remain divided in nuclear talks
France sees big hurdles in search for deal; John Kerry in Geneva for third day of talks
They were searching for an agreement that would cap Iran’s nuclear capacity and make it more transparent in exchange for phased, initially limited, relief from international sanctions that are choking its oil-based economy.
The goal is to take a first step towards resolving a protracted dispute that could otherwise plunge the volatile and oil-rich region into a new conflict.
“We’re working hard,” Kerry told reporters as he arrived at his hotel shortly before midnight on Friday.
A senior US State Department official said: “Over the course of the evening, we continued to make progress as we worked to the narrow the gaps. There is more work to do.”
Iran and the powers have remained quiet about the nitty gritty of negotiations, eschewing the mutual accusations of bad faith typical of past, sporadic meetings over the past decade. Diplomats involved in the talks say the change shows how committed to a substantive agreement both sides have become.
Mr Kerry cautioned after arriving on Friday that “there are some important gaps that have to be closed.”
Iran spelled out one major bone of contention. A member of its negotiating team, Majid Takt-Ravanchi, told Mehr news agency on Friday that oil and banking sanctions imposed on Tehran should be eased during the first phase of any deal.
The powers have offered Iran access to up to $50 billion in Iranian funds frozen abroad for many years but ruled out any broad dilution of sanctions in the early going of an agreement.
Diplomats said a breakthrough remained uncertain and would in any case mark only the first step in a long, complex process towards a permanent resolution of concerns about the nature of Iran’s nuclear quest.
But they said the arrival of Mr Kerry, Mr Fabius, Mr Hague and German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle signalled that the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany may be closer to an elusive pact with Iran than ever before.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was expected to join them later on Saturday. Kerry arrived on Friday from Tel Aviv after what appeared to be a tense meeting with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rejected any compromise with Iran.
Mr Netanyahu warned Mr Kerry and his European counterparts that Iran would be getting “the deal of the century” if they carried out proposals to grant Tehran limited, temporary relief from sanctions in exchange for a partial suspension of, and pledge not to expand, its enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel.
Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal and regards its arch-enemy Iran as a mortal threat, has repeated mooted possible military action against Tehran if it did not mothball its entire nuclear programme.